As Ancient Origins reported in its article “ The True Story of Pocahontas as Not Told by Disney ,” the real life Pocahontas was different from her portrayal in the 1995 animated feature film. However, the image of a young Indian princess risking everything for her love, John Smith, has gripped the popular imagination and will not let go.
Aside from the fact that Pocahontas and John Smith were never an item (she was perhaps 10 years old when they first met), Disney’s Pocahontas fails to address the woman’s genuinely interesting and important historical significance, particular with regards to Native American–English relations. The 1998 sequel film, Pocahontas II: Journey to the New World , was perhaps an attempt to address this but it is also riddled with inaccuracies. The real story of Pocahontas is poor material for children’s movies but nonetheless quietly profound.
An imaginary portrait of Pocahontas. McKenney, Thomas Loraine, 1785-1859 & Hall, James, 1793-1868. ( Public Domain )
Looking for Truth in Pocahontas’ Story
From the outset, it must be acknowledged that “none of Pocahontas’ views were directly recorded” so we have no idea how she felt about the dramatic events to which she was a part (Dismore, 2016). Moreover, much of the reality of Pocahontas has been obscured by myths, many of which were deliberately created to heighten the appeal of her visit to England.
What is known is that Pocahontas was born around 1596 to Chief Powhatan. Her mother’s identity was never recorded. Chief Powhatan was the leader of an alliance between some 30 Algonquian-speaking tribes that lived in the area known as Tsenacommacah (modern-day Virginia). He played a key role in overseeing Indian-English relations beginning in 1607, the year of the establishment of the Jamestown settlement by the Virginia Company.
The English were woefully unprepared for life in America. Hundreds died of starvation and disease. The only lifeline the colonists had was the generosity of the Native Americans. Pocahontas frequently participated in the bringing of provisions to the starving settlers, but she was not alone in doing so and it is unlikely that she orchestrated the initiative, especially given her age.
‘Pocahontas’ (1883) Clarke, Mary Cowden. ( Public Domain )
Jamestown could not rely on resupply from England partly because of the vast distance but also because the Virginia Company was facing a budget crisis. When news of the countless problems faced by the colony reached London, many investors pulled out, leaving the joint-stock company short on funds.
Pocahontas the Princess
Indeed, Pocahontas was brought over to England primarily as an advertising gambit to raise capital. For a company teetering on the edge of financial ruin, they spent a good deal of money to make Pocahontas seem like royalty because “crucially, it might encourage investment in the struggling Company” (Dismore, 2016).
Pocahontas was not a princess like Sleeping Beauty or Jasmine. As the daughter of a powerful chief, she perhaps enjoyed some favorability but “her childhood was probably fairly typical for a girl in Tsenacommacah…she learned how to forage for food and firewood, farm and building thatched houses. As one of Powhatan’s many daughters, she would have contributed to the preparation of feasts and other celebrations.” (Biography.com Editors, 2014) It is probably in such a capacity that she attended the fateful summit of Chief Powhatan and John Smith. On the eve of Pocahontas’ arrival in England, John Smith wrote a letter to Queen Anne in which he vividly descripted the beautiful Indian princess throwing herself across Smith’s body in order to protect him from harm. Historians today believe that Smith was never really in danger but “he may have been subject to a tribal ritual intended to symbolize his death and rebirth as a member of the tribe” (Biography.com Editors, 2014). But this version of events would have done little to add to the hype of Pocahontas’ visit.
Artist’s depiction of Pocahontas saving the life of Capt. John Smith. (1870) ( Public Domain )
Pocahontas’ Real Love
So Pocahontas was not really a princess as such and she had not really saved John Smith’s life – then why was she brought to England?
In 1610, the 600 original Jamestown colonists had been reduced to 70. By 1613, the remaining Englishmen were desperate and believed that the Powhatan was holding out on them. The colonists sought to obtain their salvation by force. This became known as the First Anglo-Powhatan War. During this time, Pocahontas was captured and held prisoner. The colonists said she would not be released unless the bountiful supplies and English prisoners held by Powhatan were delivered to Jamestown. Powhatan failed to satisfy the colonists’ outrageous demands and so Pocahontas remained in captivity. For her safety, she was held in the house of a chaplain named Alexander Whitaker. There, she was taught English, the Christian faith, and how to dress and act like an English lady.